Sandbag walls rise in Fargo ahead of Red River's crest

Throwing sandbags
Ajay Thapa, a sophomore at South High School in Fargo, N.D., hands off a sandbag to a classmate on Friday, April 26, 2013. More than 1,000 student volunteers helped build sandbag dikes in Fargo on Friday. The Red River is expected to crest just below 38 feet next week, according to a National Weather Service flood forecast.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

In what's almost become a city-wide tradition, Fargo residents went about building sandbag defenses on Friday to hold back the rising Red River.

The city's efforts were made easier by 1,500 high school students who fanned out to lay sandbag dikes across neighborhood backyards. And the city needs fewer sandbags than previously thought.

The latest weather predictions show spring flooding in the area could be less severe than in years past. Revised forecasts have once again downgraded the flood severity.

At one Fargo home, Erik Carlson is sweating as he slaps 40-pound sandbags tightly into place. The finished dike looks like a pyramid, narrowing at the top always built to be a couple feet higher than the water's likely to get.

Together the sandbags form a long wall a few feet from the back of the house Carlson grew up in, where his mom still lives.

Click for more photos of sandbag dike construction

"It's not a dike made out of necessity; it's a dike made out of caution," Carlson said. "I'm not too worried. I don't think anyone is too worried. My mom is; she's a pessimist."

Carlson, 24, works as a youth director at a Lutheran church in Fargo. He said spring sandbagging has in some ways become a way of life.

"I did this in '09 and in '07 and 2010. They kind of run together," Carlson said. "It has become kind of a normal thing."

Major floods in four of the past five years prompted the cities of Fargo and Moorhead to purchase and remove many homes along the river — homes the cities have put resources into defending year after year.

This year, the city of Fargo wants to buy 75 homes in the flood plain. According to city officials, one-third of those homeowners have agreed to sell because of this year's flood.

Carlson's childhood home is on the list. Neighbors have already sold and their homes are gone leaving empty lots and permanent earthen levees.

He said his mom is considering the buyout because she's getting tired of the yearly worry about flooding.

"It would be hard to image not having this house here," Carlson said.


Monami Niyo, a sophomore at Fargo South High School, is one of hundreds of students who volunteered Friday morning.

"Why do I do this? It's a nice way to pay back to the community for what it does," Niyo said. "Any chance we get an opportunity to help out our community I think we should just take it. So I decided to do it."

Niyo remembers the record floods in 2009 and said this year should be better.

"The water might rise, but I don't think it will rise a lot to hurt us that much," Niyo said.

The city has scaled back the number of sandbags it needs from 1.4 million to only 100,000. Updated forecasts have further downgraded flooding potential to a crest of 37-39 feet. That's down from the 41 feet the city was preparing for earlier this week.

Steve Moss, an engineer for the city of Fargo, said there are still concerns about what might happen in low-lying areas.

"Because of the late thaw, we don't know exactly what the river is going to do, how fast the water will come up," Moss said. "We're just going to kind of best guess what we need to do and then advance from there."

Back at the Carlson home, sandbagging has wrapped up for now. A levee along the back of the house should survive the forecasted river crest.

But from where Erik Carlson stands, the banks of the Red River still look a long way off.

"That's the positive and negative about living along the river," Carlson said. "You get a large back yard, but also you've got to deal with some crap every one in a while. You get these 500-year floods every 10 years."

The Red River is expected to crest the middle of next week.

MPR reporter Dan Gunderson contributed to this report.